Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “farmers

New Publication: Future Agricultural Models

I’ve just added a new Agricultural Extension team publication to the “Publications” tab on this blog – head on over to take a look!

This excellent paper was written by AgEx team member Miriam Hird-Younger (who also happens to have a fantastic blog). It’s a great overview of some of the current views on global food systems and recommendations for how EWB can engage going forward. In a nutshell, there is no consensus about the “way forward” in agriculture. Some people promote high-intensity commercial farming, others encourage organic, while still others support small-scale producers.

EWB does not have the answer (or the expertise to ascertain an answer) to this highly complex problem of ongoing food production. But I believe it’s important to stay on top of the debate and make sure that we continue to ask ourselves, “what type of agricultural model are we working toward?” It would be a shame to look back in 20 years and realize that although we were promoting human development, it was at the expense of the long-term sustainability of food production in Africa.

So head on over and take a look at this thought-provoking paper! Link is here.


Challenging Perspectives – Extending a Hand Up

Challenging Perspectives is EWB Canada’s annual holiday campaign to combine fundraising and outreach. You can also read my Perspective below here and make a donation. Click here to browse some of the other perspectives.

When I first came to Ghana in March 2010, I lived with a host family in a village called Zuo. The head of the family is a farmer named Salifo. He is more educated than most of his neighbours. He can read and write in English and do simple math. He is a teacher at the local kindergarten, a community health volunteer, and helps run the local shea butter soap production group.

My friend Salifo

But when it comes to farming, Salifo doesn’t do well. One day last summer, I sat down with him to analyze his farm from the previous year. He’d grown 3 main crops: maize, rice and groundnuts. I asked him how much money he’d spent on growing these crops. From his memory, he listed out precise figures of his investments in seed, fertilizer, tractor services and labour. I wrote each number down under the corresponding crop. Next, I asked him how many bags he’d harvested from each crop, and the price he’d sold them for. Again, he listed the numbers from memory, and I wrote them all down. Finally, we arrived at the crucial step, the one he’d been avoiding: calculating his profit.

Maize: -293GhC

Rice: -204GhC

Groundnuts: -4GhC

In total, Salifo had lost 501GhC (about $375) on his farm that season. And that doesn’t include his own time and labour.

Why did Salifo lose so much money? There are three contributing problems:

  1. His farming skills and knowledge are poor. Salifo may be an educated man, but he doesn’t know how to get the most out of his farm. He needs to learn about the basic techniques that will improve his productivity: use improved seed, plant in rows, apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and respond quickly and appropriately to pests and disease.
  2. He doesn’t have a business mindset. Salifo is so many things, as I mentioned: a teacher, a community health worker, a volunteer, and a farmer. But he is not a business man, at least when it comes to his farm. He needs to learn some basic business skills: record-keeping, marketing, profit calculations and decision-making.
  3. He can’t control nature. Alright, this one isn’t his fault. He lives in an area with poor soil fertility and unreliable rains. But this means his risk management skills need to be even better – he cannot rely on his rain-fed farm to sustain his family.

This is a tragedy. Thousands, if not millions of farmers in Ghana are suffering from these same skill deficiencies. But there is a solution: effective agricultural extension services.

Tahiru, an Agricultural Extension Agent, giving advice to farmers in Wamale

In order to profit from their farms, farmers need at least 2 things: 1) information on how to farm, and 2) business skills. Agricultural extension provides both of these things. (They also need input and output markets; see EWB’s Agricultural Markets team’s work for more!)

Traditionally, the government has hired Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) who go out to the villages to teach farmers about new technologies and practices. However, with new Information Communication Technologies (ICT) such as video and mobile phones, there is room for innovative new solutions to increase the reach and impact of extension services to farmers.

Ultimately, effective extension services come down to farmer behaviour change. This is an area where EWB has both experience and expertise. Drawing on our history of success with the Agriculture As a Business tool, we are developing new tools and approaches to improve technology adoption and behaviour change in farmers using innovative new technologies. Check out some examples here and here.

I know many of you have supported my work in the past. I sincerely thank you for that – your donation has made a difference! I have personally stepped up my commitment to the cause this year by becoming the Manager of EWB’s Public Sector Agriculture team in Ghana. I am asking you to also step up your commitment by contributing this year to my fundraising campaign!

Your donation to EWB will allow us to keep exploring and developing these tools to help farmers like Salifo to make a profitable living from their farms. I personally believe that we are making an impact through our work, from the farm right up to the policy-makers. But we need your donation to keep it up! Whether $5, $50 or $500, your donation will make a difference.

To make a donation, please visit my Perspectives page here.

Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!


A Tale of Two Projects

This is the story of two projects, one MoFA office and a case of bad coordination.

In early 2010, a prominent project came to my office, the Tamale Metropolitan office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. One of the project’s aims was to provide training and inputs to farmers in a bid to increase production (this is a VERY common project design in northern Ghana). They wanted to enlist the help of our Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) to carry out the implementation, in exchange for a small sum (also very common). The first step was to form groups of 50 farmers, each with one acre of land to contribute toward the project.

But it was not enough to just identify the farmers and their land. Like every project, this one was required to communicate their progress back to their funders in the West. As part of their monitoring, they had to send back a GPS map showing the location of every piece of land that was part of the project. That is 50 one-acre farms per farmer group, with anywhere from 1-3 groups per AEA, for 20 AEAs. That’s about 2000 individual one-acre farms, all shown on a GPS map.

And who do you think had to do that mapping, to go out into the field and walk around the perimeter of each farm with a GPS unit in hand? That’s right, the MoFA AEAs.

With only two GPS units in the office, this mapping procedure dragged on for months. Some AEAs only took half the data, while some managed to avoid doing it altogether. But eventually, the project kicked some butt and all the AEAs finished the mapping. Hours and hours of fieldwork, all to send a progress report to a donor in the West who probably won’t even look at the map.

Tahiru, an AEA in Tamale

Later in 2010, another project came to visit my MoFA office. This project was focused more on market linkages than training farmers. They were aiming to develop a database containing  information for marketers – farmers’ names, contact info, location, main commodities, volumes, etc. They were looking for some sample data to populate their database and they had selected the 50-person farmer groups set up by the first project to use as the sample data.

One of the pieces of data required for the database was the GPS coordinates of the farms. The project brought one GPS unit and asked the AEAs to go around to each farm and mark it on the GPS. Of course they would provide a small sum for this work to be done.

No one protested. They took the money and did the EXACT SAME WORK ALL OVER AGAIN.

A farmer's field outside Tamale

During the time taken to collect GPS data, whether for donors or marketers, the AEAs were not fulfilling their core role as extension agents. Their time was taken up by projects, away from solving farmers’ problems, away from responding to farmers’ needs and away from delivering agricultural information. The AEAs were used as information-gathering tools, rather than a means to actually reach out to farmers. And this was not just one day – this was weeks and weeks of work. You can imagine my frustration at finding out that this was done not once, but twice in the same year.

Mustapha, an AEA in Tamale

The development industry is a funny thing. Here in Tamale, several NGOs exist solely for the purpose of bidding on and implementing donor projects. They don’t have one specific mission, they don’t do their own project design, and they aren’t particularly discerning in the types of projects they bid on. They’re in it for the money.

So what’s the kicker in this story? These two projects were implemented by the EXACT SAME NGO. The project staff sat next to each other in the same office, but never talked enough to know that they were collecting the same GPS data.


Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century

This is a post for Blog Action Day (#bad11), a movement that aims to start a global discussion through thousands of blogs posted in one day on the same topic. This year, the topic is one dear to my heart: Food.I have been thinking about food a lot for the past 1.5 years through my work in agriculture with EWB. We are working closely with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to reach out to farmers, but what are we working toward? This question has nagged me more and more as time goes on, to the point that I ran a learning session at our last EWB retreat with the same name as the title of this post – Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century.I’ve been reading a lot on this topic in the past 8 months. I’m not sure if there’s a trend toward addressing this issue lately, or if I’m just noticing the articles because I’m finally looking for them, but there is a LOT of writing out there! I’ve summarized a few of my favourite articles in the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.
The Issues

First, let’s get to the heart of the issue: it’s a matter of food production vs. environmental sustainability. Traditional industrial agriculture has achieved record production through intensive farming practices, mechanized farming and petro-chemical inputs applied with machine-like precision. This has come at the expense of the environment, with corporate farms using up precious fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems in the quest for more food. However, viewing these as two opposing goals is a false dichotomy; if we want to achieve food security far into the future, we must find a way to fulfill both of these goals AT THE SAME TIME! My research into this topic has tried to answer this question: what model of agriculture will allow us to achieve sustainable global food security?

Development workers have a unique perspective on the problem of global food security because we must take into account an additional question, “what is good for poor farmers?” In this case, it’s not just about achieving adequate food production, or nutrition levels, or even environmental sustainability. We must also take into account the lifestyle of the poor Ghanaian farmer, who is being asked to adopt this model to continue providing food for his fellow citizens. What model of agriculture will spur human development in Ghana while also fulfilling the above two goals?

Though I mentioned that there are a lot of people writing on this topic right now, there is a relatively low level of consensus as to what the future model of global agriculture should be. There is a never-ending number of models being promoted (organic, agroecology, industrial, urban, etc.), each with its own convincing arguments and promoters. This is quite startling, and makes it very difficult to choose one agricultural model to promote in our work. So how can we plan for the future?

My Opinion

Let’s be very clear here: the following are my personal opinions, not those of EWB, Ghanaian farmers, or anyone else you might confuse me with. There is no right answer, only a series of thoughts and questions that remain to be determined.

Traditional agriculture in Ghana is somewhat organic, in the sense that there are no chemicals applied to the crops. Most farmers practicing these traditional methods also don’t use improved seeds, proper land preparation techniques or any other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As a result, they get low yields compared to their neighbours who use “modern” techniques – mechanized land preparation, chemical fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides, and better GAPs. This is leading Ghanaian farmers to see chemical agriculture as the way forward, when in fact many of these GAPs applied to their traditional organic fields would also increase yields significantly.

Right now, MoFA is steering Ghana toward a future of intensive industrial agriculture through credit-in-kind schemes and input subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? This is the path every other industrialized nation has taken to get out of poverty and push forward their economies. But I think it’s too late to take this path. The time has come when oil-based agriculture is getting too expensive (and oil prices are too volatile) to rely on. The price of oil will only increase in the next 20 years, so why are we promoting a model of dependence on these inputs in Ghana?

If things go ahead as MoFA wants them to, soon the majority of Ghanaian farmers will be using industrial agriculture methods. Food security in the country will be improved, but for how long? Soon fuel prices will be too high for Ghanaians to afford the food produced in this manner, and we will be thrown back into food insecurity. Ghana is at the brink of “maturity” in agriculture, about to choose a method to promote and follow for decades to come. Let’s help them make an appropriate and sustainable choice.

My colleague Mina works with an organic fertilizer company near Tamale and often cites a study that showed yields to be virtually the same when appropriate amounts of chemical and organic fertilizer were applied to test fields. In fact, the plot with the highest yields used a combination of both types of fertilizer. So why are these methods most often presented as mutually exclusive?

There are many sustainable practices being used in Ghana on a small scale – sustainable land management, soil fertility techniques, inter-cropping to naturally get rid of pests, organic fertilizers and weedicides and many other GAPs. What are the best ways for EWB to promote these techniques without being paternalistic and dictating the way forward for Ghana’s agricultural development? Tricky…

I think one of the key lessons here is that we need to be adaptive, changing our approach depending on the conditions (economic, social and environmental) in which we find ourselves. Of course, these conditions are changing all the time, so we need to be constantly testing our assumptions, checking if the information we gathered 1 year, 6 months or even 2 weeks ago is still relevant today. And we need to help the Government of Ghana to have the same resilient approach, adapting to new information and conditions as the world lumbers toward a new model for sustainable food security.
More Details

Different levels of thinking about this:

  • Global food systems
  • Consumers in Canada
  • African agriculture
  • Farmers
  • EWB’s stance
  • Our strategies

More questions to ponder…

  • How do we bridge economic development & environmental sustainability in Africa?
  • What are the pros and cons of each agricultural model?
  • How do these changes in policy translate to realities on the ground?
  • What stance should EWB and other NGOs take on these issues? How will this effect our work?

Other tricky issues (you can Google these for more info):

  • African land grabs
  • GM crops
  • Foreign investment
  • Subsidies
  • Food price volatility
  • Climate change
  • Famine
  • Biodiversity
  • Farmers’ rights
  • Biofuels

Further Reading

Special report on the future of food – population, development, environment, politics, nutrition, food waste:

Politics, global markets, demand for food:

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and the concept of agroecology:

Agroecology and development:

Organic farming:

Food waste:

Concentrated industrial vs. wide-spread “nature-friendly” agriculture, which is better for the environment:

Smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability:

Findings of DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century:

Moving from old to new models of agriculture:


Big John’s Self-Help Super Microfinance Scheme

Meet John Alhassan I. He is an Agricultural Extension Agent (AEA) at my office of the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. His job is to deliver agricultural information to farmers in his operational area and to help them improve their farms, whether that means reducing the level of poverty in a household by adopting better agricultural practices, or helping commercial farmers to get in touch with the market. John sees all types of strengths and needs in his daily work as an AEA.

One of the farmer groups that John works with is a women’s group of 24 members. He started building up this group using EWB’s Agriculture As a Business program last June. Through the program, group members were encouraged to contribute group savings to a bank account that John had helped the group to open a few years ago. Each member contributes 50Gp (about $0.35CAD) per week. After a few months, the group had built up their savings and they were ready to invest.

John was concerned that the group was too large to give a loan to each woman. If they divided the savings 24 ways, it wouldn’t really make a difference. Instead, he divided the group into four groups of six women each. He randomly selected one group to receive loans first by drawing the numbers 1-4 on pieces of paper and selecting one from a pile in front of the women. Each of the six women in the first group received a loan of 100GhC (about $65CAD) to invest however she wanted, but with the understanding that in two months time she would have to pay back the full 100GhC, plus 5GhC of interest. Most of the women are processors, so they elected to invest in bulk purchases of rice, groundnuts or shea nuts to process and sell at a profit. After two months, 100% of the money and interest were paid back to the group bank account, and the next round of loans were given out to six new women.

After each group had received the loan once, John upped the stakes – the next round of loans were for more money (120GhC), but the interest also increased (10GhC). Again, the repayment rates have been 100% so far. The group is currently on this second round of loans and their bank account balance is still increasing. The women are dedicated and determined and John is encouraging them every step of the way. The goal is to make enough money for the group to buy a grinding mill, a purchase which will give them an even higher return on investment.

John Alhassan I.

Why do I think this is such a great story?

John is really passionate about helping people in his role as an AEA. Though many farmers have been trained over the years to sit around and wait for government money to come, John knows it isn’t coming any time soon. He also knows that the banks aren’t often willing to help; he already took this women’s group to the bank for a loan and they were rejected. Help isn’t coming from outside, so John is helping the group to help themselves. This group is serious, dreaming big and working hard to achieve their goals.

John has now taken this scheme to other farmer groups, where it is also working successfully. But why is he so successful in this approach? There are a few key elements of this grassroots project that have made it work so far:

  1. There is no time limit on this project. This is John’s own initiative, so he has taken the time to build up and groom his farmer groups until they are ready to handle serious money. He is not under pressure from donors or banks to report quarterly on his progress, and his funding isn’t going to dry up in 3 years. Instead, this home-grown approach gives the group and the AEA time to build up their skills and capacity to handle these loans.
  2. The group members have a personal relationship with John and a high degree of trust in him. He visits the group often to check in on their progress, encourages them when they need a kind word and keeps them accountable to each other. He hasn’t just come in to tell them what to do “for their own good”, but he has taken the time to build a trusting relationship with the group.
  3. The approach is tailored to the needs of the group. This isn’t some monolithic project coming in and prescribing a microfinance approach to fit all smallholders. Instead, it’s one AEA who knows the nuances of this group and has created a program that will work specifically for them. He has decided on the timing, the group sizes and amounts of the loans in collaboration with the group so that it best fits their needs. And this completely changes for each of the groups he works with.

This is an approach that is working for John’s farmers. Of course, it wouldn’t work if you tried to scale it up. It would be too complex, with too many variables and little things that would invariably go wrong – the farmers don’t trust the facilitator, the groups are thrown together to access loans, the money is too much or too little, the ToT didn’t teach trainers to visit the groups often enough. Farmers are smart – they’ve seen it all before, and they know how to manipulate the system. If you tried to scale this project, it just wouldn’t work.

The beauty of this approach is that it was developed out of a clear need: to find financing for the group to meet their goals. It’s a tailored approach that is based on a strong relationship between the AEA and the group members. The problem presented itself and the AEA was pushed to find a solution. In the development world, where we often find solutions in need of problems rather than the other way around, this is a refreshing turn of events.

I admire John for his dedication and creativity in meeting the needs of his groups. I wanted to highlight him as one of the many AEAs in the Ministry who are working tirelessly with inadequate pay and resources to do the best they can for farmers. These are the small beacons of hope that keep me motivated to keep working for change in the Ministry. John is truly an inspiration!

So I say, to all of you, keep doin’ it for Dorothy!


The Donor Effect

Yesterday I had the chance to meet up with Mustapha, my colleague at MoFA and one of our star field extension agents. He has just returned from a trip to Canada, where EWB (with CIDA’s support) brought 18 of our African partners to participate in our annual National Conference in Toronto. In addition to attending the conference, the African delegates were set up with placements related to their field of work. Mustapha had the chance to visit the University of Guelph’s agricultural college, OMAFRA and Agricorp, as well as an organic dairy farm and a commercial pig farm. These were all really valuable opportunities for him to expand his knowledge of farming and learn about new perspectives and practices. He was like a sponge, soaking it all up. And he had a great time!

Mustapha and fellow African delegates with Robert Chambers at the EWB National Conference

But one story he told me has me a bit troubled. On one of his placements, he had the chance to meet with a group of local religious leaders (or “elders”, as he described them). This group wanted Mustapha to tell them what he thought was needed to improve the livelihoods of Ghanaian farmers. Mustapha mentioned inputs like seed and fertilizer, and also shared the fact that many of his colleagues are trying to do their jobs without adequate transportation (motorbikes). He talked about the need for credit in order to grow an agribusiness, even at a small scale.

I guess they were impressed because upon leaving the community, Mustapha was presented with an envelope containing $500. He was told that this money was to “help his farmers” in whatever way he saw fit. “If you do well, there will be more where that came from.”

When he reached my office yesterday, Mustapha was obsessed with finding the right use for this money. Should he use it to buy fertilizer and give it out on credit to his farmers? Should he use it to promote vegetable production? What about giving it as a loan to a women’s group he works with? He was throwing out ideas and asking for my opinion, stating, “I need to report back to the people in Canada this week on how I’m going to use the money!”

And there it was. Mustapha was under pressure to report back to his donor. It was taking him away from his real job, which at this time should be reconnecting with the farmers in his operational area, whom he hasn’t seen in over a month, and preparing a presentation to share what he learned in Canada with his colleagues in Ghana. He wasn’t taking the time to investigate the opportunities, to find the best use for this money – instead, he had to find a quick way to spend it so he could report back. He wanted the funding to continue, so he needed to find a good use right away to reassure the donor he knew what he was doing. Even though using this funding represented only a fraction of the work Mustapha has on his plate, it was taking up all his time.

On top of that, Mustapha was at a loss as to how to actually give out the money – after all, an extension agent doesn’t usually have a lot of extra cash, so people would ask questions. He asked me whether EWB would be able to disburse it to farmers. I gently reminded him that we never give funding to our partners or the farmers we work with, as it erodes our trust relationships and changes the nature of our interactions. This is one of the core principles of the Agriculture As a Business program: farmers must choose to undergo the training knowing that there is no funding coming at the end.

Now, I know these people mean well. They want to do something, anything, to help the poor farmers of Ghana. They want to make sure their money is going to good use, not being eaten up by administrative costs or corruption. And they want to have a direct connection to the impact of their donation (a common sentiment and the reason sponsor-a-child campaigns are so effective). I’m sure they don’t realize the constraints they’ve now placed on Mustapha and his work.

But Mustapha is now a one-man aid organization. He is in the position of accepting a donation, figuring out how to use it for good, organizing all the logistics to make sure the recipients of the aid benefit from it, and reporting back to the donor. All while keeping up his real job as an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture (though the donor doesn’t care so much about that part, they’re not funding it).

This is a microcosm of the donor-recipient relationship. Rather than simply getting funds to go ahead and do their jobs, local NGO and government workers are under severe pressure to report back to donors for any funding received. This takes up an inordinate amount of their time and attention and can result in a decline in the quality of their real work in the field. I have now seen firsthand, from a friend and colleague, how donor funding can distort priorities and reduce the effectiveness of an otherwise excellent civil servant.


Happy Farmer’s Day!

Last Friday was National Farmer’s Day in Ghana, which is a national holiday to celebrate farmers and their role in the country (it’s a big role!). Everyone enjoyed the day off – except Agric staff, who were working their butts off!

Each district holds a Farmer’s Day celebration in one of the villages. This year our celebration was in Dunyii, a small village on the road heading east out of Tamale. There were tons of plastic chairs, canopies to shade people from the sun, a microphone, loudspeaker, etc. – all the trappings of a formal engagement.

The day started off early with staff getting to the site to set everything up. The “big men”, including politicians, government workers, and heads of local NGOs, started arriving around 9am. The day was kicked off around 10am with some welcome speeches and music/dancing/drumming by a local cultural group. It was great!

There were a few other speeches, and prizes were awarded to several farmers in the district. These prizes include Best Metro Farmer (the overall best prize, including a bicycle, cutlasses, roofing sheets, Wellington boots, a radio, fertilizer, and other goodies), Best Woman Farmer, Best Youth Farmer, Best Agric Staff and Best ___ Farmer for all kinds of crops – Yams, Maize, Soya, Cattle, etc. It was a wonderful day!

After the formal celebration ended, we cleaned everything up and headed back to the office, where food and drinks were served to celebrate and appreciate the staff. Then everyone took off early to watch the National Farmer’s Day Awards on TV (yeah it’s a big deal!).

The purpose of Farmer’s Day is to celebrate farmers. It’s a tradition that’s been happening now for 26 years. I think it’s a great idea. But sometimes the real focus of the day – the farmers – gets lost in the politics. This is indicative of a larger sentiment throughout MoFA, which is becoming more and more influenced by political figures and programs. But really, the purpose of MoFA and what I’m working to promote is to SERVE FARMERS WELL.

A gallery of photos from the day is attached. Have a look!

Happy Farmer’s Day!!